The Charlie Hebdo story is a tale about extremism. While one extremist aspect of the story has been acknowledged widely, the other has largely gone unnoticed.
Yes, there exist violent individuals on the fringe of some Muslim communities that wish to impose their views on everyone else. They have no mainstream support, neither religious nor legal. Even commonsense exposes their failure, as the very behaviour they were challenging stands even more glorified now. But there is also another equally radical aspect to this story.
Admittedly, it is not easy to talk about this so soon after the Paris attacks, but we must not ignore this — namely the futility of an extreme interpretation of the right to free speech. Espoused by Charlie Hebdo, this provides no benefit to society at large. We must question: was this magazine a valiant knight fighting for free speech? Or were its motives commercial gimmickry to get international coverage for a magazine with a circulation of merely 30,000?
Let there be no doubt: free speech is an essential universal human right, but as a means to an end. Sometimes it is bound legally, such as against hate speech, and sometimes morally, such as against making fun of a physically challenged child to her face. The West understands this. In just one example, this very magazine was once banned by the French government for making fun of many deaths in a fire.
Now, when the age of internet has put the people of Los Angeles and Paris next door to the people of Riyadh and Islamabad, will we not extend this principle of common courtesy to each other?
In conclusion, the right to critique must stand, and even extend to Islam, as it has for centuries. And certainly with that, comes the right to offend. But we must differentiate that from being maliciously demeaning in a diverse society. Such an extremist use, if practiced in everyday life, would render our societies entirely inhospitable. So I condemn this attack without condoning the approach Charlie Hebdo took, unleashing extremism via words and pens. Indeed, history may show that both were equally detrimental to the sanctity of the right to free speech.
- The reader is a Pakistani professor of management based in Islamabad, Pakistan